Baby Eleanor gazes over Casey’s shoulder into the empty room beyond. Her sweet face brightens as something attracts her attention, and she waves. Who is she waving to? No one is there. “But I want to think they are there,” Casey says, “Greemie and Grandy, Byeo and Poppy, Colombo and Cam, all grinning and blowing kisses.”
I want to believe it too.
When Casey’s daughter was born, I gave her a framed photograph taken in 1954. It portrays a circle of guardian Eleanors: baby Lea, my mother, my grandmother, and her mother, Jessamine - not an Eleanor, but hopefully a willing, watchful guardian all the same. The photo sits on a shelf above the baby’s changing table, and now, at age one, this fourth Eleanor correctly points her chubby finger when asked to identify Mom and Byeo.
At nap and bed-time, Casey sings “Byeo, Bye” to Eleanor, the lullaby my grandmother sang to me, that I clamored for, begging “More Byeo, more!” such that the title became her name. When first I stood in the dark of Eleanor’s nursery, my arms around my daughter and her new baby, swaying with them as we softly sang this special lullaby together, tears closed my throat after the first verse; I could not get the words out. How I hope these beloved women were nearby, maybe singing with us, knowing how much they are missed, how often they are evoked.
In Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the ghost of Jacob Marley tells his former partner, “How it is that I appear before you in a shape that you can see, I may not tell. I have sat invisible beside you on many and many a day.” For Scrooge, “this was not an agreeable idea,” but on my own sad days, I have gazed wistfully about me, wishing the wraiths of my grandmother, Mom and Dad encircled me.
In October, Dave and I planned a trip to the Old ’76 House in Tappan, NY, drawn not by ghosts, but by the tavern’s notorious history. According to Adrian Covert’s Taverns of the American Revolution, the food was good, the décor authentic, and the backstory, intriguing. In September 1780, British Major John Andre was captured with the plans for West Point, provided by Benedict Arnold, secreted in his boot. The major was imprisoned in the tavern and hanged as a spy in a nearby field. Exactly the sort of tale to entice us to dinner.
We were late for our reservation as it turned out, and the two tables of guests already seated finished up and departed as we ordered. “We’ll eat quickly!” we promised Laura, our server, as she led us to a table in front of the fireplace.
The tavern was exactly what we’d hoped for with its massive hand-hewn wooden beams and wide-plank floors, two blazing fires, and tables set with pewter chargers and blue and white Delft china. The cocoon of antiquity enfolded us, a haven from the havoc of current events.
Laura was gracious and friendly as she jotted down Dave’s charred salmon platter and my pasta with wild mushrooms and asparagus. We were the only guests, so Dave said, “Can we buy you a glass of wine? Will you join us?”
“Let me submit your order and take care of a few things… and I will!” Shortly after, she poured herself a beer and pulled up a chair at our table. Judy, the hostess, wandered over as well. Other than the four of us, only the chefs remained, wearily preparing our salmon and pasta in the kitchen.
Conversation skipped over Major Andre, and drifted toward odd occurrences at table #2, mysterious thumpings on the second floor, and an ethereal little boy who often sat on the stairs with his dog.
“In fact… wait ‘til you see this,” Laura said, as she pulled out her phone, swiped to a picture, and leaned over to show me.
An attractive young couple smiled at the camera, cheek to cheek, the young man’s arm around his girl. They were seated at the table right next to ours: the setting was exactly as it appeared before me. Except immediately behind the couple was a hooded figure, slightly blurred as if in motion, but as distinct as the young couple. Eyes wide, I passed the phone to Dave and turned my incredulous gaze to Laura.
“I know. Crazy, right?” she said. “As guests often do, they’d asked me to take their picture. The next day, they called the restaurant to contact me and said, ‘If you’ll give us your number, we’ll text the picture you took of us last night. You won’t believe it.’ But, I did believe it. That old woman behind them? She often appears over there.” And Laura pointed to the snug table for two, just feet from us, tucked to the left of the fireplace.
The door of the tavern opened and a short, burly man entered. Judy’s husband, come to pick her up. In jeans, a sweatshirt, and a cap, he appeared to me a no-nonsense kind of guy, rough and weathered, a man who worked with his hands.
Well! We’d detained these indulgent people far too long, so Dave and I finished the final morsels of our tasty dinners, paid the bill, and put on our coats. As our hosts rose to wrap up business for the day, Judy said, “Feel free to check out the other rooms. We have plenty of stuff to do before closing.”
So, Dave and I played ghost hunters, snapping shots of the stairs, table #2, and the old lady’s cozy corner table, hoping for spectral images, or at least floating orbs, but no luck. Then Dave chatted with Judy’s husband by the bar while I peeked into the adjacent dining room. After reconnoitering, I joined them. Dave turned to me and said, “Listen to this.”
Judy’s husband said, “You’ve been hearing some ghost stories I hear. Well, this one’s about my mother, and believe me, I wouldn’t make something up about my mother.
"She'd had a stroke and was paralyzed before she died. Several years later, my brother came to visit the family home with his kids. The children were young, and after dinner, were tucked in early. Hours later, after we adults had gone to bed, we heard a ruckus upstairs and rushed up to see what was happening.
“The lights were on, and the kids were whirling around the room, all excited.”
“My brother said, ‘What’s this about? Get back to bed!’”
"But the kids were wound up. 'Grandma was here! She was twirling in her blue dress! She kept saying, ‘I can dance again!’
“My mother loved to dance,” Judy’s husband said solemnly, his gaze steady. “And she was buried in a blue dress.”
“We tried to trip the kids up,” he continued. “We didn’t believe them. They’d never met my mother, so my brother pulled out an old photo album and pointed to pictures of my aunts thinking the kids were messing with us and would go for that. But they said, ‘No, no, no’ until… ‘That’s her! That’s Grandma!’ and sure enough. They got it right.”
Maybe little ones retain a toe-hold in the Other Side, enough to more easily spot doting guardian Eleanors or a grandma in a blue dress. At times, I’ve imagined settling in on the heavenly couch when my time comes, and my loved ones there regaling me with tales of efforts to alert me to their presence. Not that I've been totally obtuse, mind you, nor have friends and family who have wondered about the butterfly flapping persistently at a window or staying, content, on a cheek; feathers in unlikely places; a Mr. Steak matchbook; “Build Me Up Buttercup” broadcast at moments most-needed; a bald eagle’s treetop landing; or “NOSE” painted in white on a rooftop.
Is it so surprising that despite so many signs, we’re inclined toward doubt when every day we are surrounded by the miraculous and barely notice?
“Faith is what someone knows to be true, whether they believe it or not.” Flannery O’Conner